Rameraz trotted down the corridor… People didn’t tend to look too closely at stray dogs anyway, no matter how uncommon it was to actually see one in the linear arcologies. Dogs were part of everyone’s mental landscape, even if most of the ones they actually saw were in movies and games. That was making life much easier.
It would take a pretty close look for anyone to spot the differences between an old-style dog and a Neodog anyway. OK, he was a big, solid, dog (about 80 pounds, with a broad head to support a larger brain) and he had an odd voicebox and a variety of minor modifications – but you couldn’t spot most of them without a medical scan. Most Neodogs looked sort of mixed-breed of course – he looked more like an Irish Setter than anything else – but the ones who, like Rameraz, had accepted Enthrallment could vary that to suit themselves anyway. He couldn’t see why some of the others hadn’t been able to accept the bond, but apparently some just couldn’t consent deeply enough. Bad luck for them! The powers were fun, and the purpose was better!
Rameraz was actually a bit more conspicuous than he thought; being strong and healthy simply said that someone was taking care of him of course – but large dogs were pretty rare in a world of shortages, and even rarer in the arcologies. Still, his smartcollar was more than capable of spoofing all the usual tags and registration chips, and a bit of glamour was usually enough to leave people who saw him with the impression that he belonged around the place.
With the last group of youngsters safely off to Kadia, it was time to start collecting another. The last couple of weeks of rescue-recruiting had gone really well, and they hadn’t had any serious security breaches yet!
There were more lost, runaway, and unregistered kids down this way… It had been bad enough for them before the disruptions started and their world had started sliding towards war, but these days their lives were pretty miserable. The way the Linear Realms boosted the range on psychic powers was really handy; it let him find hungry, apprehensive, children a lot more easily – and he had safety and a future and entire worlds to offer them.
The place was pretty limiting on magic of course, but you couldn’t have everything – or at least you couldn’t have everything in any dimension that needed intervention.
Despite the scale of the operation, the Neodog recruiting-sweeps hadn’t attracted much official notice in the Linear Realms. With preparations underway to meet an unknown extradimensional invasion, and an ongoing insurgency in the linear arcologies, reports of kids disappearing after they followed big dogs was barely a ripple. The linear arcologies were hotbeds of urban legends anyway, and half the legal kids in them were hiding now.
The street-level crooks were less involved with the big picture, completely unaware of the war of souls, and – necessarily – alert to any change in the pulsing rhythm of the linear arcologies. There were some rumors spreading around the underworld – and they knew that the usual hiding places wouldn’t be enough to accommodate all the kids who were missing, even if they were full to the brim.
They also knew that they weren’t. The hideouts were crowded – but unless the kids were learning to get along without eating, there were an awful lot of them going unaccounted for.
Some of them had caught glimpses of dogs, others had spoken to some of the few kids who had refused to go with the dogs – and they were beginning to believe that something unnatural was going on beyond some children’s fantasies of magic rescuers. A few were even sure that the dogs were both communicating with the kids and leading them away somewhere – although the routes they took were impossible to follow.
One or two had seen a dog and a group of children pass through simple doors and corridors and vanish from the world.
The Neodogs were used to the computerized monitoring of Core and Kadia, where reports would flash around the world in moments, instead of feeding rumors – and trusted that the fact that they hadn’t had to hack the local systems much to stay out of the news meant that the operation was still secure.
They were soon to learn a little better.
Rameraz headed into the lower levels of Linear V, in the East Coast US metropolitan zone. It was forty miles long, forty floors high, and close to half a mile wide at the base, constructed in a series of identical blocks – and supported many millions of residents.
Rameraz: Standard Neodog Thrall-Attributes. Personal traits: 36 Power, 8 Mana with Reality Editing. Magical Fields: Illusion, Conjuration, and Enchantment, capable of creating level two effects (but only four spells per day in the Linear Realms). Witchcraft Talents: Dreamfaring, Glamour, Hand of Shadows, Healing, The Inner Eye, Witchfire, and Witchsight. Unusual Skills: Mythology +11, Magical Creatures +14, and Computer Programming +13. Bioelectrical martial art with Wrath (bio-electrical discharges and inner strength to let him use it more often). Unfortunately, they can’t carry much equipment when disguised as normal dogs without giving things away. They’ve got a few doses of a tranquilizer (low dose) or knock-out drug (high dose), and a light effector module disguised as collar-components, but that’s about it.
Down in the depths – or at least within one of the hundreds of rarely-accessed storage and service sectors – of the arcology, Doctor Brenner was preparing for some transplant surgery. Times might be a bit lean, but people were always willing to pay for health – and the reasonably healthy young donors were a dime a dozen. He rather preferred transplants and control implants to lobotomies and modifications anyway. So often the things the wealthy and perverse wanted done to their toys were jobs for butchers rather than surgeons – and where less skill was needed for the job, the pay was correspondingly less.
Setting up the operating theater had occupied his men for a few hours, and collecting the donors had taken very little more time. The typing work showed plenty of decent matches; it was so easy to cross-index the ethnic enclaves to the desired types these days. It was still best to stick with the unregistered youngsters – you could be SURE that there was no official pursuit or pesky psychic hunting for them – but they were usually easier prey anyway, even these days.
Rameraz followed the fading traces of panic – and the slow pulse of sleeping minds – past a guard to a couple of locked-up rooms, slipping in through a power-conduit section. His smartcollar and personal computer skills were more than enough to override the access restrictions. He found twenty-odd somewhat underfed youngsters, laid out unconscious, with no ID-signatures that his collar could pick up. Unregistered, nothing apparent in the environment that would knock them out… They’d probably been drugged with something and locked up here, probably to be used for something nasty! That was totally unacceptable!
Rameraz was so indignant that he almost missed a smaller number of unconscious child-minds across the hall, in Brenner’s operating theater. He was sealing the door of the child-warehouse from the inside – he’d get the kids awake and slip them out through the power conduit corridor – when one of those minds started to fade away.
Across the hall, Brenner had finished lowering the unwilling donor’s body temperature, opened his chest, and was starting to remove his heart. Life would flicker on in the youngster’s brain for a few minutes, but it would be long gone before they wheeled out the corpse. The boy should have been grateful and honored anyway; he had nothing to look forward to but a short, miserable, and furtive life in the underworld. He’d been going to die slowly and meaninglessly – and instead he had been given a clean and purposeful death and a chance to contribute to society and to give life to someone more productive (or at least wealthier).
He’d never been able to figure out why the medical association had pulled his license for simply advocating using unwanted and illegal kids as organ donors. Why let them suffer instead of getting some use out of them?
Rameraz felt the young, unconscious, mind start to sink towards extinction – and scrambled frantically out of the engineering access ways into the antechamber to the operating theater. A human child was dying nearby – and he was not there to help or defend it! The instincts that had been built into the Neodogs were no less powerful for being understood. He was failing in his duty!
And he was barred from the room. There was a porthole in the door however – and what he saw was a horrible shock. The child was dying at the hands of a doctor, not because a procedure was failing – but because the doctor was deliberately removing his heart.
Blindly frantic, Rameraz reached out with Witchfire – molecular telekinesis – to infuse the child’s brain with oxygen and glucose. It would only buy the boy a few minutes of unconsciousness-before-death, but if he could get the boy’s body away from his would-be murderers he might be able to find a way to keep him alive long enough for someone to respond to an emergency call for help.
But the doctor was preparing for another operation! He was even… complaining about the poor condition of the kids he was going to kill! He had several assistants and several guards handy! And more guarding the area that he’d slipped past in the engineering spaces! Even attacking him might not stop him!
Not that it was easy for a Neodog to think about attacking or defying a human in any case – but a would-be murderer was within bounds. But it probably wouldn’t even save anyone!
They were putting another child on a table to kill her!
Rameraz frantically fell back on a cliche so old that it’s origins predated the Core computer network; faithful-dog-sounds-the-alarm.
He used Witchfire to weld the operating theater door shut and triggered the fire alarm. In a structure the size of the arcologies a fire was a major threat, and the emergency crews would respond at speed. They might even get there in time to save the first child! And they could arrest the evil doctor and his compatriots while they were at it!
He might need all his power for life support – and even at that, he couldn’t keep it up for long – so he settled for leaping up to trigger the alarm manually.
Unfortunately, Doctor Brenner was both intelligent and alert; he’d noted the wisp of smoke from the edges of the door, and stepped over in time to see Rameraz sound the alarm.
(Dr) “What the hell? A dog that can trigger alarms? Who’d train a dog to do that?”
Trying to open the door revealed that it was stuck – and Rameraz saw the Doctor as well. There might be a way to save the first child after all! He didn’t have the power to provide long-term life support, and assistance was on it’s way, but nowhere nearby… The boy’s only chance would be to be hooked back up to life support again – and there was only one doctor in the area.
Rameraz burned a bit more power on a mental suggestion; if the Doctor wired the kid up again, he wouldn’t be risking having a dead kid – and a murder charge – on his hands when the fire-rescue people arrived.
Brenner accepted the thought – it wasn’t an unreasonable notion – but also started calling for the guards outside the room and the aides in it to break down the door. If he got out, he could escape and it wouldn’t matter if the kid died anyway. After all, it might well already be too late – as far as he knew – to keep the boy’s brain alive.
(Dr) “Get this damn door open! We’ve got to move!”
The doctor headed back to try and keep the boy alive – and took his eyes off Rameraz.
Rameraz burned one of his spells on short-term invisibility. That way he could interfere with the guards efforts to get the door open without revealing himself and – if he had to – he could launch a surprise attack if they started to get the door open anyway. He couldn’t let them get it open, if the Doctor abandoned the boy, he’d die!
Three lookouts arrived – and started to work on the door. It obviously wouldn’t stand up for long if they were allowed to keep battering it…
Rameraz gave up on invisible subtleties and shrouded the door in Witchfire – sending the guards stumbling back, with mild burns.
It was HARD doing that to people – but he HAD to!
He also couldn’t keep that up for long… He burned another spell laying an illusion of fire over the door. They’d just been burned by it, hopefully they wouldn’t notice that it was no longer hot.
Dr Brenner was busy – but he could hardly miss the guards yelling about the fire just outside the door. He kept his hands moving – but definitely had the energy to complain.
(Dr) “Well this is just great. I’m behind on my Mob protection payment, my flyer’s in the shop, this operation’s a complete botch, and now THIS. Might as well reconnect the kid, no point in risking a murder rap…”
Rameraz finally got some good news; a couple of the other neodogs should be able to arrive soon enough to get the other children out of the storeroom and take them to Kadia (it wasn’t likely that any would refuse after this) if he could keep the thugs attention on him for a while longer. That might help the doctor get off, but at least the assault, kidnapping, and attempted-murder charges should be good for some time.
The local systems said that the emergency responders were on their way too – but he’d have to stall for several more minutes for them too.
But the first child was stabilizing! Deeply unconscious, but stable! At least Mr Evil Doctor was good at his job!
Meanwhile, Brenner – now that he was probably off the hook for murder – was trying to organize getting the door open. He could survive prison, but he certainly didn’t want to burn to death. The operating theater wasn’t exactly equipped for breaking down doors, but things that smashed were easy to improvise.
Wait… The actual heat seemed to be minimal, and there didn’t seem to be anything on the other side of the door to FEED those flames… What the hell? The door had suddenly melted shut, a dog had triggered the fire alarm, and now there were mysterious flames from nowhere?
He set his aides to trying to batter their way out from the inside – and had some instructions for the guards outside:
(Dr) “Get that damn dog! It’s probably got modified paws to hold a blowtorch or something! That should be worth a lot of money on the black market!”
Rameraz added another dose of real flames around the door to discourage the aides – and snarled and snapped at the three guards coming to grab him.
Doctor Brenner was still thinking… He’d been watching that time. The flames had flared up from nowhere. Fire didn’t work that way unless someone was somehow feeding a controlled stream of flammable gas into the air by the door. The flames had nothing to feed on, and weren’t spreading.
(Dr) “Is that bloody dog holding a flamethrower or something?!?”
That was, of course, a “No”.
The Linear Realms might not have magic normally – but they did have psychic talents, albeit normally only among the humans. Brenner wouldn’t have been an organlegger if he hadn’t been willing to gamble a bit on his intelligence.
(Dr) “A psychic dog? I must have it! The potential profit is too great not to grab it!”
Rameraz would have groaned if he hadn’t been busy growling. Damn it! The murderous bastard was both clever AND still thinking under this kind of stress!
Doctor Brenner, of course, would have disagreed with the first part of that assessment. After all, it wasn’t MURDER. Nobody wanted those kids anyway, and it wasn’t like their lives would be good. This way they could help the real people…
Rameraz, of course, being a Neodog from Core, didn’t think of excess kids as being disposable. Besides, his master wanted them!
The guards were still closing in… wearing light concealed body armor too, which would be hard to bite them too effectively through. If he got too far from the door, he wouldn’t be able to keep the people inside from breaking it down – and he probably couldn’t win a direct fight! They guards had hands and weapons!
Besides, they were HUMANS, and it was HARD to fight humans!
He settled for dodging – and managed to keep that up for some time. A Neodog with Thrall-enhancements and the active-enhancement fibers from a smartcollar threaded through his fur was pretty impressively agile.
Dr Brenner – watching through the door and through the pickups – was simultaneously annoyed and impressed. The Aides had a few things to say too…
(Various) “What the hell IS that thing? Did it actually set a fire and turn in an alarm? What the hell happened to the door?!?”
Rameraz – forced into a corner – was running low on tricks. He had a few more minor spells or shapeshifts, his bioelectrical martial art, and witchcraft… If only they’d been able to carry tools and weapons on this mission!
Wait – the floor was metal. If he let them grab him, he cold use the bioelectrical blast to try and stun them, then use the knockout drug on them to keep them down while he concentrated on keeping the door shut – or at least electrified!
Sadly, the guards armor was also effective insulation – and electrifying the door wouldn’t have worked out well anyway; everyone in the room had rubber gloves on to start with.
(Dr) “Biolectrical AND Psychic? I MUST have that animal! Use the tranquilizer pistols you use to collect the kids with you dimwits! Get some knockout darts in that thing!”
Rameraz abandoned the electrify-the-door plan, at least until he managed to put the guards out somehow. He conjured some minor air spirits to try to foul up the guards aim – or to pull the triggers while the guns were pointing elsewhere – and was lucky enough that that actually took out one of them, and spread plenty of darts around.
He was hard enough to hit – and his fur, backed and supported by a smartfiber web, was thick enough – to avoid being put down. The guards, now under attack by a telekinetically-manipulated swarm of their own darts, were not so lucky.
The Doctor was still shouting “Take Cover!” – and barely resisting adding “You Idiots!” in classic mad-doctor fashion – when the third guard went down for the count.
The aides didn’t quite have the door down when Rameraz got back to electrify it.
Doctor Brenner tried flooding the area outside with knockout gas – he hadn’t lasted as long as he had without learning to take quite a few precautions – but the smartcollar and effector module could easily filter that out.
Rameraz slipped away to help get the rest of the children out as the fire-rescue services were arriving.